Op Eds

A Day For Human Rights

Dec. 10 is internationally recognized as a day to salute those around the world who struggle to defend, protect, and promote the fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of all mankind. We may be in the 21st century, but millions of people are still fighting for the liberties we enjoy in this country. Recognition of such abuses throughout the world is the first step in the fight against them.

One such victim of abuse, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Fidel Castro’s dictatorship for vocalizing his opposition to the government and, even worse, for defending human rights. In 1998, Dr. Biscet uncovered the government practice of chemically inducing abortions through the use of a drug called Rivanol. In a book titled “Rivanol: A method to destroy life,” Biscet described government-mandated abortions being used as a method of contraception. This drug caused viable fetuses to be born alive, only then to either bleed to death or be wrapped in paper and asphyxiated.

Denouncing this practice cost Biscet not only his physician’s license and his home, but all claims to liberty. After being released from an initial three-year sentence, Biscet continued to advocate for freedom of speech and the extension of human rights to the Cuban people, creating the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. After organizing a peaceful meeting at a friend’s house to discuss human rights violations in Cuba, the state police barged in, dragged the men onto the street, and beat them while their spouses and children watched. His perseverant focus on human rights landed him a 25 year sentence in 2003.

Biscet has been subject to inhumane prison conditions, confined in a windowless, three by six foot cell for periods as long as 42 days. His toilet is a hole in the floor. When not in solitary confinement, he spends his time in a communal cell with violent criminals. With the exception of two visits from his wife, he is denied visitors, as well as medical treatment for his high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and hypertension. But he continues his fight, bravely refusing the government’s offer to let him leave the country if he retracts his pleas for justice.

The courage and faith of this man earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in November. His son was at the White House to accept it on his behalf. Dr. Biscet unfortunately couldn’t be there; he spent another day as a Cuban prisoner of conscience, locked in a wretched cell. Before accepting his father’s award, Yan Valdes Morejon emphasized in a Boston Globe editorial that his father’s suffering has not diminished. Biscet has lost nearly 40 pounds and most of his teeth. Castro refuses to release Biscet, despite appeals from the United Nations and international human rights organizations.

By no means is this the only incident of abuse that can be charged against Castro’s regime. In 1967, prisoners had nearly seven pints of blood extracted from them to be sold to Vietnam. The brutal abuse of political prisoners in Cuba was chronicled by Armando Valladares in his book “Against All Hope,” which he presented as a US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Valladares was imprisoned and sent to forced labor camps for refusing to place a placard on his work desk stating his support for the government.

This is the reality of human rights abuses that regularly occur not only in Cuba, but elsewhere in the world. Today we celebrate those who risk their livelihood to defend human rights.

Why should we be concerned if human rights abuses are so widespread? Biscet’s role model, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once told us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This rings especially true when the abuses are occurring only 90 miles from our shores.

More than any other day, this day ought to commemorate brave individuals with whom we might not have any connection other than our shared humanity. With so many places in the world where human dignity is suppressed, the fortune of our situations is a mere blessing of history. Any of us may very well have been born in a place devoid of individual liberties.

We need not endure abuses and imprisonment on our own in order to recognize injustice and advocate human rights. In fact, our liberty can serve as the best weapon against oppression: Our voice has an impact, and its reverberations are felt around the world. College students like you and me have been messengers of hope for decades, and we shouldn’t desist now, especially at an institution with the international reputation of Harvard’s.

Yet in order for such progress to be made, education is paramount: Consciousness of the issues at hand has to be created. Raising awareness is a process in which we can all participate, whether by joining a human rights organization on campus or just speaking to your friends over dinner. Student groups in Cuba are risking persecution just to promote awareness, organizing peaceful demonstrations calling for freedom of expression. Their courage is inspiring, especially considering the recent arrests of three of their leaders.

What I say is admittedly idealistic, but nevertheless necessary. It is our duty as privileged beneficiaries of freedom to advocate for the respect of human beings throughout the world. John F. Kennedy ’40 once told us: “When one man is enslaved, all are not free.” True freedom exists only when it is reaped by all. And we can help.

Andrew Velo-Arias ’11 lives in Holworthy Hall. He is a member of the Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association.